First came The Sandwich. Then came the gradually louder social media buzz, accelerated by manufactured brand wars on Twitter, and buoyed by a flood of accompanying media coverage that shows no signs of slowing down. Now, less than two weeks after Popeyes rolled out its new fried chicken sandwich nationwide, we are in the third stage of the hype cycle, in which heated debates and shortages and hot takes and backlash build off each other, stoking the mania like kindling in flames. And at the center of the storm — the Popeyes chicken sandwich, which has been so memed and mythologized that it’s easy to lose sight of what it actually is: a perfectly fine product of impeccable food engineering and cheap labor and ingredients that form the backbone of fast food.
Now that is what you call a successful product launch.
Like every other publication driven to cover the sandwich by the twin forces of pageviews and genuine excitement, Eater — the news team, not the critics who are actually qualified to review food — decided to conduct an unofficial taste test of multiple fast-food chicken sandwich offerings. We are not the first to do so, nor will we be the last. We cannot at all guarantee that our test was the most rigorous or all-encompassing; that honor would probably have to go to the Chicago Tribune. But what we can promise you is that our taste test was severely flawed, impeded by our own hubris and other human limitations. (For instance, I dropped one test chicken sandwich on the floor and didn’t immediately dismiss the wild thought of, “Can I still serve this??” More on that later.)
Here is Eater’s taste test of four fast-food chicken sandwiches:
Methodology and process
The initial shortlist of fast-food chains to patronize for this test included Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, Shake Shack, McDonald’s, Fuku, and Burger King. We dropped McDonald’s and Burger King because neither chain is particularly known for chicken sandwiches. Fuku was also eventually cut because it’s not widely available across the U.S., and also my editor who was supposed to pick it up was running late because she had to wait an extremely long time at Popeyes, despite ordering in advance! Therefore, our final chains were: Popeyes (chicken sandwich, which was supposed to be spicy but in the chaos, they gave us regular instead), Chick-fil-A (spicy chicken sandwich), Shake Shack (chicken sandwich), and Wendy’s (spicy chicken sandwich). FLAW: CONFUSION AND LAZINESS.
We planned to buy two sandwiches of each and cut them into fourths so that eight Eater staff members could participate in the tasting. It would be a “blind” test, a.k.a. tasters wouldn’t know which sandwich hailed from which chain. We decided to figure out the other details of testing later. FLAW: LACK OF FORESIGHT.
The day of the taste test, my editor and I left our respective homes on our respective routes to pick up the sandwiches, timing our departures so that we would arrive at the office at roughly the same time. As it was the middle of the afternoon on a hot August day in New York, the temperature outside was approximately 87 degrees (plus humidity). I would not recommend this as the backdrop for frantic sandwich acquisition, as it wasn’t long before I began to wish I were in literal hell rather than the thick, oil-streaked heat of the crowded fast-food restaurants. They seemed even busier than usual, as if the press-approved shine of Popeyes had provided a halo effect for any chain selling chicken sandwiches. Behind the counter, employees worked at double speed, calling out orders for pick up every couple of minutes. “I’m so sweaty,” I messaged my editor at one point, at the same time as she messaged me: “I’m sweating bullets.” FLAW: NO CHILL.
The sandwiches, after more than 30 minutes of travel time, and another 20 minutes of being prodded and rearranged for photos, were … shall we say, less than fresh. If the photos of these products look even remotely attractive, that’s only because of deft post-processing skills, not because of any inherent beauty left in these sandwiches. Let me just reiterate, they were rapidly cooling and comparatively ugly by the time they were cut into quarters and taken to the testing table. FLAW: WE SHOULD’VE JUST GOTTEN THEM DELIVERED HOT BY PROFESSIONALS.
The frenzied, sweaty minutes in between photographing the sandwiches, cutting them, moving them to the table, and making up and jotting down last-minute judging criteria for our tasters — meat, texture/crunch, toppings, bun, and overall taste — somehow felt like the next circle of hell. In that fugue state of panic, I spied one forgotten Chick-fil-A sandwich on my desk. Relieved to have finally reached the end of this hair-raising process, I snatched up the sandwich and ran to get it cut into fourths. Naturally, I held the foil bag from the wrong end; inevitably, it opened up mid-stride; inescapably, the sandwich fell to the ground, chicken fillet slipping from the bun and landing with complete skin-to-floor contact so that there was no possible hope of salvaging it. From my throat arose a primordial shriek so anguished it turned the heads of at least a few nearby staffers from our sister site The Verge. Four of the eight testers were unable to sample a Chick-fil-A sandwich. FLAW: HUBRIS, NOT LOOKING AT MY OWN HAND.
The least-worst chicken sandwiches
Here’s another flaw: judging was kind of a mess. The instructions, which I delivered in a rattled manner to everyone’s confusion, resulted in feedback ranging widely in both format and tenor. The following ranking is based on those responses, cobbled together by assigning quantitative values to qualitative comments and fiddling around with a spreadsheet for two hours. FLAW: VERY LOOSE MATH.
4. Wendy’s: spicy chicken sandwich
Wendy’s fared the worst overall and in the subcategories of texture/crunch and toppings. Tasters noted that it had a strong peppery taste in the batter, a flaccid crust, a mushy tomato slice (Wendy’s sandwich is the only one of the bunch served without pickles), and a divisive amount of mayo. But some staffers were fans of the bun, which was described as “pillowy” and “nicely sweet.”
3. Chick-fil-A: spicy chicken sandwich
Chick-fil-A’s sandwich, as beloved as the chain is controversial, scored second in texture/crunch and toppings, and third overall. A few tasters noted the “assertive” spice and “thick” meat. One participant chose this sandwich as their favorite of the bunch, praising the heat and flavor.
2. Shake Shack: chicken sandwich
Perhaps a surprise outcome for those who automatically assumed Chick-fil-A would score higher, Shake Shack turned out to be the dark horse of the competition. The meat (“all-natural cage free,” according to the chain) was actually rated the worst — “dry,” according to two tasters; “mealy,” according to another — but the toppings (pickle and buttermilk herb mayo) were rated the highest. It should be noted that this sandwich is noticeably smaller than the other products tested.
1. Popeyes: chicken sandwich
The rumors are true: according to the internet as well as Eater’s tasters, Popeyes was the clear winner in the category, earning top marks by a wide margin in meat, texture/crunch, bun, and overall. The meat was described as moist, the buttermilk batter impressively crisp and craggy, the seasoning flavorful, the pickle crunchy, the brioche bun nicely buttery. “Best of the bunch,” one person wrote. “I want more, like, stat.”
But don’t just take my/our word for it (disclaimer: I didn’t eat any of them) — Eater NY chief critic Ryan Sutton, who we somehow roped into all of this, deemed Popeyes’ chicken sandwich “not so much the best of the bunch as the least worst of these problematic fast food giants.” Wow. Low bar, high praise, indeed.